Sunday, June 3, 2007


Big, heart-shaped leaves that taper to a long point, showy white blooms, extravagantly long seed pods, and a bold winter silhouette --- everything about catalpas demands your attention. The exotic look shouldn't surprise; Catalpa speciosa is the nothernmost member of a family(1) of mostly tropical vines and trees that includes trumpet vines and Jacarandas.

The trees are in bloom now. A handsome example is at 806 Third Place near the corner of Crescent Avenue. The tree is just to the right of the driveway as you face the house.

Catalpa speciosa's native range is the midwest around Illinois, but farmers spread it around the country because the tree's wood makes good fence posts; it is very resistant to rot. Catalpas are also planted because their major pest, Catalpa sphinx caterpillar, makes excellent fishing bait. Professor Edward Gilman, formerly of Rutgers and a leading tree authority, reports that the caterpillar is juicy and has very tough skin, just what you want for catching catfish.(2) The caterpillars can be purchased online. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, Audubon Magazine reports that state extension services publish instructions on how to get your catalpa infested by sphinx caterpillars.(3)

One explanation for the tree's name is that it is an alteration of Catawba, the Indian tribe in whose territory the tree was first found. Indians used the leaves to make poultices to treat wounds. They are also said to have smoked the seed pods for their medicinal and hallucinogenic properties. Catalpa is known in England as "Indian bean tree".

Because they are messy, catalpas are not the most popular street trees. The trees drop some of their large leaves in summer. The seed pods are up to two feet in length and drop their seeds over a long season. The owner of the tree at 806 Third Place, a plant lover, relates that a former neighbor of hers once offered to cut down her beautiful catalpa at his expense because of the messiness.

(1) Bignoniaceae

(2) Edward F. Gilman and Dennis G. Watson, 1993

Copyright Gregory Palermo


Robin Gates said...

Hi Greg,

I just found your Blog thanks to a Newsletter from Dottie Gutenkauf. I'm so happy to find someone else who appreciates all of the beautiful trees in Plainfield and can't wait to see the Catalpa on 3rd Place.

Next mid-May you may want to include a McNair Horsechestnut in my backyard at 429 Stelle. It is over 100 yrs. old and the State has earmarked it as a notable specimen tree. It is gorgeous when full of dark pink cones of flowers at that time. It is native to Greece and Albania and there used to be two in front of City Hall that died from disease.

Thanks for this wonderful site.

Robin Gates

Anonymous said...

Hi, love your blog. You should come by 912 Central to look at a very old magnificent oak that must be over 100 years old. We have also started a beech hedge in front of the property with 50+ young beeches...